More reflections on Grenfell

It is a sad fact that in the case of many major disasters, the attempts to put things right often exacerbates the initial tragedy rather than ameliorating it. In my view there is a serious risk that this may prove to be the case following the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, as evidence-based decision-making has taken a back seat to what appears to be something of a panic-driven political knee jerk.

This is not badly motivated – anyone who saw the fire (it was visible across the River from my Ward in Wandsworth for example) or has heard the stories of those most directly involved cannot fail to have been deeply affected.

Nonetheless, the national fire statistics are interesting. Perhaps the most important fact is that over the last 30 years the number of fire deaths in the UK has fallen by some 64% – one of the great successes in public policy.

Dig deeper and other points emerge. In 2016/17, if a fire broke out in a property it appears that one was least likely to die in a block of 10+ storeys (4 deaths per 1000 fires); most likely to die in a 4-9 storey block (8 per 1000); with 1-3 storey blocks of flats and houses/bungalows/ conversions lying in between (6 and 7 per 1000 respectively). If the last five years combined are taken it is houses and conversions that are the most ‘dangerous’ (7 per 1000) but 10+ storeys are still the safest (steady at 4 per 1000 fires). If London alone is taken the five-year figures are practically identical (not surprising since about two thirds of Britain’s 10+ storey blocks are in London).

The numbers equate to 6 fire deaths in London in 10+ storey blocks over the last 5 years. For a Borough like Wandsworth this is equivalent to about one fire death in 10+ storey blocks in any 25 year period, presuming of course that fire safety does not continue to improve as it has done in recent decades. Of course Grenfell will skew these figures enormously for the year 2017/2018 but the overview is clear enough.

After an excellent immediate response, in which Wandsworth (like many councils) told residents that only two or our blocks had ever been ‘clad’ and that in both cases there had been flat fires that had not spread throughout the buildings, within a week Wandsworth had announced plans to impose sprinklers in all flats in all 10+ storey council blocks, to take £24 million out of the Housing Revenue Account (in effect the rents of council tenants) to pay for it and to recharge leaseholders a sum expected to be of the order of £3-4k each for the programme.

This was done without any semblance of consultation with those who will be most severely affected. This has struck many residents as ironic – here we were, being told that one of the big lessons of Grenfell was that councils should listen more closely to their residents, yet Wandsworth was simply ignoring the voice of residents and taking unilateral action of its own.

As it happens, West Hill Ward has the first London County Council tower blocks, constructed on the Ackroydon Estate in the early 1950s. For 65 years these blocks have been protecting residents, often from themselves, from many flat fires and other events. The Fire Brigade and the Council, throughout that period, have rightly told residents that these concrete and brick boxes are ‘safe’.

Since 2007 it has been mandatory to fit sprinklers in all new 10+ storey blocks as they are built. This is fair enough – obviously it is much cheaper and more efficient to include a feature at the design and build stage than to try to backfit it in an existing structure. But the government, so far at least, has (rightly in my view) not made it compulsory to backfit sprinklers in older blocks.

 However, Wandsworth, like other councils, has in effect said that while residents of older multistorey blocks in the private sector are intelligent enough to take their own decisions based on the evidence, those in Council estates are not and need nanny to do it for them.

So I have heard stories of leaseholders who are just paying up to £12,500 per flat for major redecoration works (often not done very well), a huge sum especially for those who bought under right-to-buy and are still living in their old council home, and now have another £4,000 to find. Some fear they may have to move out. I hear of (and have visited) those who have just finished doing up their own property but who are now faced with someone coming in and ripping it all up to put the sprinklers in. I hear from those who are scared about what would happen if the sprinklers went off accidentally or because of a child’s prank, say, and they were left with the costs of putting things right. Others wonder if legionella might be a threat in the warm stagnant water.

These concerns are not limited to leaseholders. Several council tenants, who will not have to find the cost upfront (though of course it will be taken out of a fund that could be dealing with their dreadful damp problems, a real health threat, or many other improvements), are just as adamant in their opposiito0n to the proposals. Many would like the money spent on more pressing problems.

A head of steam is now building up among leaseholders across the Borough – politically interesting given that they have been a group who have always been regarded as natural Conservative voters but may take a different stance in next year’s Council election. There is particular anger that Wandsworth used their money to obtain legal advice supporting the recharging of the costs but has point blank allowed them to see that advice so they can challenge the key argument concerning ‘improving the security of the blocks’. The Council seems merely to default to two arguments – that council estate residents should have the same safety standards as those in the private sector (simply not true, since as noted above it is only post-2007 blocks that would have this imposed on them); and that the Fire Brigade is in favour of sprinklers in high rise. (The Fire Brigade rightly focuses purely on fire – local councillors though are not elected by the Fire Brigade but by local residents to balance the various calls on their money and to act in their best overall interests.) But to be fair, Wandsworth did not put fire engines outside its tower blocks, so driving home how ‘dangerous’ they were and exacerbating for example fears among those who live on the 9th floor of a 9-storey block wondering why they won’t get sprinklers when someone on the ground floor of a 10 storey one will.

There is an alternative. We could wait until we understand the technical analysis of the Grenfell disaster. We could see what lessons there may be, which may well be more about cladding than about the original block design. We can rectify those blocks which had unsafe features added. And then we could allow individual leaseholders to take the decision for themselves. I asked the Cabinet Member (to be fair she is very inexperienced in her role) if she would be happy with the government coming round to her house, forcibly installing sprinklers and charging several thousands of pounds for doing so – given that in a house she is more at risk than if she lived in a tower block. I received back criticism for ‘continuing to use statistics’ in my argument (the biggest crime of all in Conservative Wandsworth). And we can ask the residents of each block as a body whether they want them, so valuing the tenants’ views as well. We could also target those most at risk of fire – inevitably older people, especially those who smoke – rather than a crude uniform approach that takes no account for example of the very different types of block construction that have been used and the very different way various blocks have been treated in recent years.

The haunting images from Grenfell, of course, make us desire to make such terrible events less likely in the future. We’d be heartless to react in any other way. Many residents do want sprinklers and should be helped to get them. But in my experience those who have actually lived on our estates – the engineers, the lawyers, the estate agents and all – know far more about their everyday lives than those of us sitting in the Town Hall. Let’s use this awful tragedy as a prompt genuinely to empower residents and listen to their collective wisdom, not yet another chance for evidence-lite ‘government knows best’ thinking to dominate.

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